By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service
You don’t see a lot of films set in 19th-century Wallachia with political and social overtones shared with trappings of the American Western.
If Radu Jude’s “Aferim!” is any indication, that’s too bad.
Shot in black and white, Jude’s film is at once the tale of a constable and his son on horseback looking for a fugitive, and an indictment of bigotry and cruelty.
Costandin (Teodor Corban), the lawman, isn’t much of a hero, but in this world, he’s the lesser of many evils, and that counts for something (as does Corban’s performance, which allows for glimmers of humanity).
The film is set in 1835, and Costandin and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) are searching for a nobleman’s slave, Carfin (Toma Cuzin), who has good reason to be on the run, as it turns out.
Costandin and Ionita will catch up with Carfin eventually, but this is one of those films in which the journey is more important than the destination.
Costandin almost never stops talking as they traipse through the countryside, which looks striking in black and white. He’ll insult anyone, often with truly ugly put-downs. Yet he will also claim he is fair and honest, never beating a man without reason. Now, if you will excuse him for a moment, he will visit the prostitute who just finished with his son.
But he’s also wickedly funny, and compared to some of the people they meet on their journey, Costandin is practically progressive in his thinking. A priest, in particular, is stunning in his hysterical takedowns of everyone on the planet, except for Romanians. His outrageous theory and dismantling of Jewish people is particularly venomous. Even Costandin seems a little taken aback.
The two would-be bounty hunters aren’t especially good at their job. Eventually, though, they find Carfin, put his legs in stocks, toss him over the back of a horse and begin their return journey. It’s here where Costandin softens a little, finding some value in Carfin’s life.
Jude refuses to force a happy ending upon the audience. Things happen as they happen, and if one scene is especially hard to stomach, it leads to a kind of grim resolve to just keep forging ahead as best you can. It’s a tough world out there, and Costandin has found a way to survive in it. It’s not always pretty, but in “Aferim!” it’s never less than interesting.
Big World Pictures presents a film directed by Radu Jude and written by Jude and Florin Lazarescu. In Romanian, Turkish and Romany with English subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screens at 5 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
EUROFEST: “Aferim!” is one of 62 features making their Chicago debut this month as part of the European Union Film Festival, the Film Center’s annual showcase of cinema from the continent across the pond. The Netherlands hosts the opening event on Friday, a screening of “The Paradise Suite” attended by actor Issaka Sawadogo. Later guests include novelist Aleksandar Hemon, discussing his Croatian movie “Love Island” on Saturday and March 14, and Irish actor-writer Mark O’Halloran, discussing “Viva” on March 13 and 14. For tickets and more titles, go to www.siskelfilmcenter.org.